John Hurt -- the 'in' actor who plays outsider roles
A man who consistently plays the part of the outsider is this year's most "in" serious actor. "I wasn't sure I would recognize you," the interviewer tells him. "I've seen you in just about everything you|ve done and I wasn't sure what John Hurt, the man, really looks like."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"That is the greatest compliment you could pay an actor," he responds graciously. "Now you know I am an ugly, sandy-haired, 40-year-old Irish-Scottish Englishman," he laughs, his carefully enunciated diction reflectting 20 years of diverse acting roles after studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is still a slim, lithe cricketer, endowed with a face more "interesting" than handsome, the kind of face that points toward a long career as a character actor, once the leading-man roles run out.
Not that John Hurt has been doing very many romantic parts. He is currently appearing on TV as Raskolnikov in PBS's "Masterpiece Theater" production of "Crime and Punishment" and as John Merrick in the Brooksfilms Production of "The Elephant Man" film.
If one examines Mr. Hurt's more recent roles, one can find still more outsider characterizations: as a defiant homosexual in "The Naked Civil Servant, " as the Roman emperor Caligua in "I, Cladius," as the English addict prisoner in "Midnight Express," and, further back, as the man who betrayed Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons."
He believes that the parts of Raskolnikov and of Merrick the elephant man have something in common.
"Both men felt themselves somehow beyond the pale of their own contemporary society. Both were true outsiders, each trying in his own way to break the barriers and become, somehow, insiders," he says earnestly.
In New York to talk about both current roles and, incidentally to mention the fact that he also has a starring role in the long-awaited, soon-to-be released Michael Cimino film "Heaven's Gate," Mr. Hurt has been viewing American TV in his hotel room. Ironically, he is very defensive about it.
"I get a bit annoyed at the English patting themselves on the back, saying that their television is the best in the world. It is not. We do, occasionally , put out some good stuff. But only a certain sort of stuff. We are not by any means the best in the world when it comes to putting out good, light, professional entertainment like 'Kojak' and 'Starsky and Hutch,' for instance [ two series that were extremely popular when aired on BBC]. They are extremely professional shows which work on the level they were intended to work. It is an insult to call those shows trash.
"When we did "CRime and Punishment,' we were attempting a classic and we had to make that work on the level we had chosen. If it doesn't work, then it is trash. If it does work -- and I think it does -- then we have succeeded. But it is unfair to sneer at any work that succeeds so well as much of the best American series television."
What does Mr. Hurt believe was his greatest accomplishment in the Raskolnikov role?
He shrugs his shoulders and shuffles his feet, enclosed in socks and comfortable sandals. Nobody can accuse this casually dressed (sweater and corduroys) Englishman of being a Savile Row clotheshore. "That is for other people to say, isn't it?"
He is obviously uncomfortable examining his own accomplishments, but continues with just a little urging. "If I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."